So it goes with the two biggest free agents on the World Series-bound St. Louis Cardinals. Superstar first baseman Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa, both surely destined for induction in Cooperstown someday, are not under contract for 2012.
Would the amazing late-season rebound by the Cardinals, which powered them into the October Classic, affect these two gentlemen's future plans?
Ownership continues to support his return – if he is agreeable. La Russa had a difficult season physically with a nasty case of shingles which still has not been completely extinguished. La Russa will likely sit down for a couple of weeks after the World Series to ponder his situation before announcing his decision. I believe it will be to return on another one-year contract for 2012.
One factor in potential support of him opting retirement is the health problems of the wife of pitching coach Dave Duncan. Though Duncan is under contract for next season, he may or may not continue coaching. La Russa has often joked (with a level of seriousness behind it) that he will follow wherever Duncan leads and that he does not want to manage without Duncan at his side.
Likely energized by his 2011 team coming together late in the season, the manager has dropped hits which way he is leaning in recent remarks to the media. Further, La Russa is just 35 wins behind John McGraw for second place on the all-time managerial wins list – a position the skipper apparently covets.
La Russa has six pennants, three in each league, and is seeking his third World Championship. While it would be a storybook ending to win a title and walk away on top, for the aforementioned reasons, it doesn't seem likely.
Since La Russa will probably return for just one more season at most, his future and that of Pujols will soon diverge no matter what. Given Pujols' case is all about the contract – years and dollars – his decision is not nearly as clear as La Russa's.
|Pujols in spring training|
While different durations and cash expectations have been thrown around in the media, no one knows either the Cardinals' limit or that of Pujols.
Then, there is the question of whether or not a second World Championship might soften Pujols' resolve about testing free agency. After his 11 years of success with the club, I am skeptical that an October win versus a loss would alter his stance measurably.
Several complicating factors are present in the open market. Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, also a first baseman, but four years younger, is an impending free agent. The two may get into a deadlock, hoping the other will set the market. In addition, many of baseball's traditionally biggest spenders such as the Yankees and Red Sox appear to be set at first base.
How this will translate to Pujols' market value remains to be seen, but I think it will have a greater impact than another crown would provide.
For the Cardinals, the biggest rub may be duration of contract rather than annual salary. Alex Rodriguez money, $27.5 million per year, seems out of line, as is A-Rod's 10-year commitment extracted from the Yankees. An interesting comparable, Minnesota's Joe Mauer, signed last winter for $23 million for eight years.
The Mauer deal feels more like where Pujols should end up, though the years may be high for the club's taste. They may attempt to shave off some of the back-end seasons as options or try to create another possible way out of the deal later in case Pujols' late-30's, early 40's productivity drops off the table.
Bottom line, I think both manager and first baseman will be back with St. Louis next year, 2011 World Championship or not.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his weekly minor league column on Thursdays at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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